Maintaining a Beautiful Lawn in Alaska
Alaskans, after spending a long winter playing in the snow, cherish their summers. Many prefer spending their free time during the long summer days fishing, camping and hiking in Alaska’s great outdoors. Lured out of town on weekends and whenever else possible, it can be difficult to maintain a lawn but they still like to return from their summer outings to the pleasant surroundings of an outdoor living area. A pleasant yard extends the summer living area well beyond the confines of the walls of a home and maintaining an outdoor living area need not be grueling. There are ways to minimize the amount of time needed to make an outdoor setting pleasant and beautiful. A healthy lawn, even though it needs mowing regularly under Alaska’s long summer days, takes less of one’s free time than any of the alternatives: a ground cover, a flower bed, or even a wildflower meadow. The key to reducing your work and amount of time spend in the yard is a healthy lawn. Factors that affect the health of a lawn and the amount of time required to maintain a quality lawn include the hardiness of the grass, the weed control, the amount of animal damage, the way the lawn is fertilized, and how the lawn is mowed.
In Alaska, because of the extremes in temperature and the length of time the ground is frozen in winter, hardiness is the most important factor to consider when choosing the grass seed for a new lawn. Hardiness is so important because it determines the amount of winter kill that may occur, which may be from very little to total kill. Even a small amount of winter injury will affect how a dense lawn will prevent weed seed from germinating and becoming established. The denser the turf the less chance that new weeds will appear. When an extensive amount of winter injury occurs in portions of the lawn, the soil will have to be prepared and new seed applied. Hardiness being the most important factor, choosing the best grass seed for the use of an area to be planted is vital. The primary species of turf grasses proven hardy in Alaska are bluegrass and fescue. They both have traits that are advantageous in a lawn and generally in the colder regions of Alaska a mixture of both bluegrass and fescue is best. Bluegrass forms a very dense, tough turf but is slow to become established and requires full sun to do its best. Fescue is not as aggressive as bluegrass but becomes established quickly, is fine bladed so it makes a dense fine turf that grows equally well in full sun or partial shade. When a mixture of bluegrass and fescue is used the bluegrass will dominate in sunny areas and the fescue will dominate in the shady areas to give an equally nice turf over the entire lawn area. In the wet, cloudy coastal regions of Alaska fescue performs much better than bluegrass. When starting a new lawn, whether bluegrass or fescue, the cost of the seed regardless of the price is the least expensive part of the project. The best buy is to purchase the very best varieties available for the purpose you intend to use the turf for. The University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service makes variety recommendations for Alaska. Denali Seed recommends and offers mixes that contain the following bluegrass varieties, Dormie, Nugget, Park and Cache and fescue varieties, Arcta Red, Boreal, and Pennlawn.
The family pet often has a big effect on the quality and maintenance of a lawn. The two biggest concerns when having a dog in the back yard is digging and a problem referred to as “dog spot.” Dog spot is the small dead areas on the lawn caused by urine burn. The easiest way to solve dog spot is to walk the dog off the lawn but that isn’t always possible and it is often much easier to let the dog run in the back yard. The end result is the need to patch the dead spots in the spring. How well the dead areas are prepared for seeding is very important to the success of the replanting. Preparation should begin as soon as the snow has melted in the spring. First mow the lawn close to the ground, then rake off all debris. This removes a lot of the dead grass so it is easier to loosen the soil for replanting. Fertilize the entire lawn at the recommended rate for the first application in the spring. Then with a stiff garden rake scratch the soil surface until the surface is soft and loose so the new seed has a chance to make contact with loose soil. Broadcast seed over the newly prepared area at the rate of approximately 1/4 pound per 25 square feet then rake the surface lightly. Water the newly seeded area thoroughly so the seed has good contact with the soil. Keep the newly repaired areas moist at all times until the seeded area is green with seedlings. If there is bluegrass in the mix, the area needs to be kept moist at all times for at least 3 weeks. To avoid color differences in the lawn, use the same mix of grass seed when making the repair as was used to originally plant the lawn.
Weed control is always a major issue in the maintenance of a lawn. The best possible control of weeds is a healthy, vigorous, growing lawn. When grass is growing the crown is increasing in size, causing the turf to get very dense, therefore a rapidly growing lawn does not allow the weed seed in the soil to germinate and become established. A lawn is like an established forest with its thick canopy of leaves overhead. That canopy makes it very difficult for seedling trees to become established until one of the old trees dies and allows light to penetrate the forest floor. Grass is a step higher in the ecological chain than weeds and weeds are always choked out in a mature grassland. Using nature to your benefit, crowd out the weeds in your lawn with healthy grass. Even in a healthy lawn a few weeds can become established, particularly along the lawn’s edge. The more aggressive weeds like dandelions are difficult to control once established. Weed killers are a popular solution for broad-leaved weeds but in Alaska because of our cool temperatures the chemical 2-4-D found in liquid forms and weed-n-feed is not very effective. This chemical requires a minimum temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F for several days to work effectively. It is recommended that if this type of chemical is used that it be used in the liquid form. Mix the chemical concentrate with water per the manufacturer’s recommendations in the directions on the label and spot spray only the broad-leaved weeds. This product should be used only when the temperature is above 65 degrees F and it is expected to remain that warm for several days. This chemical is very volatile and can drift as much as several hundred feet and may damage plants in a neighbor’s yard. Use this product only when the air is still to prevent drift. A more positive recommendation would be to increase the number of times a lawn is fertilized to improve the overall health and density of the lawn and remove the unwanted weeds by mechanical means. In the case of the dandelion the taproot must be completely eliminated to kill the plant.
Close behind hardiness, soil fertility ranks second in the important factors to consider for success in maintaining a lawn. Fertility affects numerous factors including the lawn’s ability to overwinter with a minimal amount of injury, to resist disease, to cope with moisture stress during dry periods and is the best weed control available. The grass plants in a lawn are heavy feeders because of the large numbers of plants per square foot and grasses are naturally heavy users of nitrogen for leaf growth. This article does not intend to discuss the chemistry involved in ion transfer or the nutrients used by a plant in its development, but does provide tables to use as a guide in fertilizing a lawn. Apply fertilizer carefully as it will burn the plants if not applied properly. Never apply fertilizer when the leaf blades are wet and water the fertilized area well after fertilizer has been applied to wash the fertilizer granules down to the soil where they can be effective.
Recent studies have shown that fall is the most important time to fertilize a lawn and that increased levels of nitrogen in the fall may actually increase hardiness and promote earlier green-up of the lawn in the spring. The application tables recommend a heavy application of fertilizer right at the time the first frost is expected in Alaska to help the grass plants in a lawn prepare for the winter.
Mowing is also an important part of maintaining a lawn as it gives the lawn a neat groomed appearance. On a newly seeded lawn mowing is very useful for weed control. Most annual weeds will not go to seed when the stems have been cut off, eliminating their presence the following year. Mowing also affects the general health of a lawn. The plants in a lawn should be allowed to maintain a minimum height of 2 to 2 ½ inches as the green blades are needed in the manufacture of food. No more than two inches or 1/3 to ½ of the leaf length should be cut off at one time. When the grass is allowed to get too tall between cuttings most of the green part of the leaf stalk is removed during the mowing, reducing the ability of the plant to manufacture food which slows down the plants’ recovery. In Alaska it is best not to mow a lawn after the first frost to allow the plants time to prepare for winter. During this preparation time the food manufactured and stored in the plants’ leaves is transported to the root system for winter storage.
Starting a lawn is time consuming but with the use of good cultural practices a lawn will become established quickly. Once the lawn is established it doesn’t take a lot of time to maintain it. A very enjoyable outdoor living area will be available and there will be plenty of time to go fishing, camping, and participate in Alaska’s many outdoor activities.